DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Left or right? It’s a split-second decision that will haunt Mark Cavendish for a long time.
The fiery Brit was right on Peter Sagan’s wheel and ready to pounce as the peloton roared into the sprint finish Sunday in the men’s elite world championship road race. Sagan swept right, picked his way to the front, and powered to his second straight world title. Cavendish hesitated a split second and went left, hoping to find more space, but got caught in traffic. He angrily stabbed his bike across the line for silver in a race that he knows he should have won.
“I lost gold, instead of winning silver,” Cavendish said. “If it was physical, it’s one thing, but with the speed I had, and the power I had in my legs, that’s going to eat at me for a long time.”
The 2011 world champion was poised to win his second world title, a first in British cycling history, but his choice to go left instead of right was the lone hiccup in an otherwise flawless day of racing. Leading a strong British squad, he sneaked into the day’s decisive breakaway on the desert flats along with British teammates Luke Rowe and Adam Blythe. Rowe punctured out of the group, but Cavendish had a free ride all the way to the seven finishing circuits.
“I was second into that corner,” said Cavendish, referring to the critical moment when the bunch split. “The guys did a great job to position me for that corner. It was important to be there, in case it didn’t come back together. It was irrelevant if it was a big group or a small group, because I can win out of both of them.”
With the Belgians and Italians committed to driving the wedge to leave the Germans and other dangerous rivals out of the frame, Cavendish could follow wheels, and save his legs for the sprint. Blythe led his star sprinter onto the finishing straight, but then Cavendish decided to slot in behind Sagan. When the Slovakian made his kick to the right with around 250 meters to go, Cavendish made the decision to swing left that will irk him for a long time. Doha’s flat, windy course was ideal for Cavendish’s fast kick, and after the great season he’s had, taking four more career Tour de France stages and winning a silver medal in the Olympic omnium, he seemed to have the win in his legs.
Going left looked to be the correct call at first, with the race closing down into the barriers. Who knows? Maybe he would have been blocked on the right as well. But the die was cast: he went left, got stuck behind riders, and had to restart his sprint. By then, Sagan was powering toward the line unhindered.
“I was on Sagan’s wheel. He went on the right side, and I went to the left because the barriers were on the right side. He got through, and I ended up in a wall of riders,” Cavendish said. “I had to stop pedaling, to come on the other side of [Michael] Matthews. It was too late to come back, I could manage to come back on [Tom] Boonen. It’s frustrating. When I am not good enough, when I haven’t got it, it’s one thing … I was faster than the others in the finals, I made a mistake.”
After answering another question, Cavendish simply ran out of words, and stared into space. With challenging circuit courses likely on tap in the next three world championships, he knows he won’t have another shot at the rainbow jersey. That would haunt anyone.